Tolstoy on Written and Unwritten Rules
I’ve written before about finding the ideas of economics in works of fiction. I’ve also described how I find F. A. Hayek’s distinction between law and legislation to be a key insight in understanding how the world works. In this system, legislation is the written, articulated, deliberately constructed rule book, while law is the unwritten, evolved, unarticulated (but not inarticulate!), tacitly understood rules which guide behavior.
So are there any examples of this distinction to be found in fiction? Delightfully, yes. Leo Tolstoy wrote about it well in his novel War and Peace. He describes a scene where a young lieutenant, Boris, is coming to speak to Prince Andrei, who is the son of a famous general and serving as a captain in the army. Tolstoy writes:
When he entered, Prince Andrei, his eyes drooping contemptuously (with that peculiar expression of polite wariness which plainly says ‘if it were not my duty I would not talk to you for a moment’), was listening to an old Russian general with decorations, who stood very erect, almost on tiptop, with a soldier’s obsequious expression on his purple face, reporting something.
“Very well, then, be so good as to wait,” said Prince Andrei to the general in Russian, speaking with the French intonation he affected when he wished to speak contemptuously, and noting Boris, Prince Andrei, paying no more heed to the general who ran after him imploring him to hear something more, nodded and turned to him with a cheerful smile.
At that moment Boris clearly realized what he had before surmised, that in the army, besides the subordination and the discipline prescribed in the military code, which he and the others knew in the regiment, there was another, more important system, which made this tight-laced, purple-faced general wait respectfully while Captain Prince Andrei for his own pleasure chose to chat with Lieutenant Drubetskoy. More than ever Boris resolved to serve in the future not according to the written code, but under this unwritten law. He felt now that merely by having been recommended to Prince Andrei he had already risen above the general who at the front had the power to annihilate him, a mere lieutenant of the Guards.
Here, in discovering the existence of this “other, more important system,” Boris was discovering how the unwritten law of the military was different from the written legislation found in official rules and regulations. The law wasn’t something that could be looked up in a book, and it wasn’t ever explicitly described or even fully understood by everyone. And the law had a flexibility and evolving character to it which the official regulations lacked. Boris realized that the best way forward for him was to act in accordance with the unwritten law, rather than the written legislation.
Having spent nearly a decade in the Marine Corps, this definitely reflects my experience. As you gain experience in the military, you start to recognize the difference between what the regulations say, and how things are actually done. A common source of amusement was laughing at the expense of “boots” (a moniker usually signifying someone fresh out of boot camp with no real experience) who still do everything “by the numbers” – that is, who do everything according to the official rules and regulations.
When you come out of boot camp, you’ve had these rules and regulations drilled into your head, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say nobody knows the official rules better or more thoroughly than someone freshly graduated from boot camp. And this is also why boots were viewed as being comically ignorant – because all they knew were the written rules, which in reality meant they knew nothing. To very badly paraphrase John Stuart Mill, he who knows only the official rules of a system knows little of that.
Of course, this isn’t unique to the military. In every job I’ve had since then, there have always been unwritten rules permeating the background. Learning and understanding those rules have always proved crucial to being successful. Chances are you, dear reader, have also noticed something similar in your experiences as well. If so, do share some examples in the comments – it’s always fascinating to be able to see what’s behind the veil.
Mar 31 2023 at 12:07pm
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Melian Dialogue (circa 411 BCE)
Jonathan Swift, “A Critical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind” (1707)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Chap. XVI (1835)
Mark Twain, The Gorky Incident (1906)
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944)
Apr 4 2023 at 9:17am
Well…I see you’ve strung several quotes together. Unfortunately, it’s not clear to me what your larger point is supposed to be by having thrown these quotes in a line? I’ve read all of these before with the exception The Gorky Incident by Twain, and I basically agree with all of what’s quoted with the exception of the final quote, which was just one of many, many things Polanyi got wrong.
Apr 1 2023 at 5:34am
The War and Peace episode was interpreted as an instance of Inner Ring by CS Lewis.
He goes into great deal of psychology of the informal system and the peculiar temptations that arise therefore.
Apr 1 2023 at 2:45pm
Kevin, my second duty station was VP40 Sangley Point, P.I. We flew SP 5B Marlin seaplanes. As I was a high school dropout I didn’t qualify for “A” School. I became an Aviation Machinist Mate via OJT. I worked on and was responsible for the 18 cylinder 3350 Wright Duplex-Cyclone radial engine and its full feathering prop. I was twenty then. Several new “mechs” who were fresh outs from “A” school were ordered there. One of the first things E7 Chief mech, Warren Steele, told them, you’ve learned a great deal, but in this squadron, you better learn to trouble shoot any problems that will surely arise. A year after my training, I was made first mech on a flight crew. We were taxiing on the water in Buckner Bay, Okinawa preparing for take of when the carburetor diaphragms ruptured in the port engine. A seaplane tender was nearby and they ferried a new carb to us. I sat on the engine nacelle, installed the new one and the turned up the engine. I was able to detect the problem and make the necessary repairs because trouble shooting was drilled into us.
Apr 2 2023 at 3:14am
I was rather irritated by a friend recently in a way that touches on this. He’s an investor, essentially an informal VC, in this case helping a technology company obtain contracts with government-owned port authorities. He described a subtle invitation to corruption that he noticed in a meeting, acted on, and successfully helped his company advance closer to getting the large contracts they want.
I was impressed by his expertise in his field – that’s exactly what he’s supposed to do to help the companies he invests in. But irritated by the pitying way in which he described his clueless tech partner – a guy smart enough to deisgn a big data shipping application, but not smart enough to pick up on the nudge-nudge wink-wink language of the incestuous non-exec director roles that grease the wheels of government contracts.
Knowing the unwritten rules is important, but eroding the importance of unwritten rules is progress.
Apr 4 2023 at 9:10am
Hey Phil –
I think you may have misunderstood what I was trying to describe. When I speak of unwritten rules, my primary focus isn’t on the faintly nefarious hint-hint nudge-nudge events you describe. Instead, I was thinking more along the lines of the kinds of unwritten rules also described so well by James C. Scott in much of his work, like when Scott made the following observation:
Taking this into account, I strongly disagree with your contention that progress is made by eroding unwritten rules – I think progress is heavily dependent on unwritten rules being able to grow, evolve, and flourish.
Apr 4 2023 at 1:49pm
Ah, malicious compliance, an important tool for anyone laboring under a system with excess law.
Apr 4 2023 at 3:21pm
I’ve never actually encountered the phrase “malicious compliance” before, but I’m delighted to add it to my lexicon, so thank you for that!
I do unironically love the idea, however, whether you call it malicious compliance, a work-to-rule strike, or any other term. To badly mix some metaphors, it’s not a coincidence that people who see themselves as fit to plan things from the top also tend to adopt a perspective that has them looking down on everyone else. The “man of system” is, as Adam Smith correctly noted, prone to be “enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan.” And the irony here is these planners fail to realize how much their plan “working” actually depends on the people on the ground being free to ignore or disregard their plan. But being blind to this reality also fools the planner into thinking their plan actually works – and the work-to-rule strike is a fantastic way to disabuse them of that notion. It’s a chance for the people the planners see as beneath them to turn around and say “Okay, let us show you what happens when we actually follow your plan and your rules just the way you intended.” And what actually happens is the system slows, locks up, or outright collapses. I find a certain beauty in that – but maybe I’m just the sentimental type.
Apr 4 2023 at 9:34am
I thought I’d toss in one example of an unwritten rule that I’m sure anyone who was enlisted in the military will recognize – and might even be recognized by officers too, if they are reflective enough. It’s the unwritten rule of keeping lieutenants contained.
As I alluded to in my post, boots are ignorant of how daily operations in the military actually work. This is largely not a cause for concern, however, because boots also have no authority. A private or PFC straight out of boot camp doesn’t have the power to mess anything up. But there is another kind of boot that is more of a cause for concern – the boot lieutenant. That is, a second lieutenant who just is recently commissioned and entering their first assignment. Unlike enlisted boots, a bootenant (as we often called them!) has real authority, while still being just as ill-informed. This led to an evolved custom of striking a delicate balance between showing respect to the officer, while simultaneously looking out the other eye towards the Sergeant for instructions on how things would actually get done. And an unofficial responsibility of every Sergeant was to carry their bootenant, basically allowing the bootenant to feel as though they were really the one in charge while simultaneously protecting the bootenant from their own ignorance and re-directing things behind the scenes. Without those unofficial rules, bootenants would be everywhere trying to make sure everything was done “by the numbers” – and nothing would ever actually get done.
Apr 4 2023 at 6:47pm
Kevin: A good friend, Hospital Corpsman E5, was assigned to Marine Air base, Dan Nang in 1965. It was called “rocket city” as it was hit by mortars with regularity. He told me this story. A year after the Tonkin Resolution. A wounded Marine, MOS 311, was ferried to a rear area and placed in a triage hooch. The medical officer was a young LTJG with time in grade. He froze when he saw the intestines of this Marine leaking out of his body. Master Chief Corpsman Smith treated this several times in his 30 years of service. WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He said, Lt, If you do what I tell you, everything will be good. The young JG did so and treated the Master Chief great respect. After that, he often sought his advice in performing difficult procedures.
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